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Indian farmers beat Malthus

Although a grim Malthusian world – too many people vying for too little food – seems inevitable, some 5 billion people around the globe have escaped hunger. Zia Haq reports.

india Updated: Nov 08, 2009 02:11 IST
Zia Haq

The three innovations

Zero-tillage farming: boosts yield, cuts costs, conserves soil and water

Customised crops: Sorghum and pearl millet turn arid land into gold
Milk network: India is largest producer of buffalo milk and sixth largest producer of cow milk

Miles to go
IFPRI Hunger Index ranks India 66th on a list of 88 countries
More than 200 million people in India are food-insecure.

Although a grim Malthusian world – too many people vying for too little food – seems inevitable, some 5 billion people around the globe have escaped hunger.

British scholar Thomas Robert Malthus wrote in his The Principles of Population in 1798 that the demand for food inevitably becomes much greater than the supply of it, although he did not explain how he determined the growth patterns.

But 21 farm innovations – three of them Indian – helped fight global hunger, said a report coinciding with the World Food Summit in Rome next week.

The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in its study, Millions Fed, looked at some agricultural practices in India that helped beat the Malthusian theory.

But, according to the IFPRI Hunger Index, India has the largest number of hungry – more than 200 million food-insecure people. India’s rank is 66th on a list of 88 countries.

The study found that India’s national milk network and two particular farming methods – zero-tillage rice-wheat farming and customised crops for arid lands – pulled millions out of hunger.

An estimated 6,20,000 farmers in north India adopted zero-tillage farming on about 1.76 million hectares, with average income gains of $180-340 (Rs 8,460-Rs 15,980) per household per year, the study edited by David J. Spielman and Rajul Pandya-Lorch stated.

Zero-tilling means farmers do not plough their land, but put seeds straight into holes drilled in the land. “This also helps conserve water and preserve soil quality,” Virender Kumar, co-facilitator at Delhi’s Rice-Wheat Consortium said.

The second Indian milestone is customising crops to make even arid lands profitable by growing sorghum and pearl millet. “Farmers can grow it with as little as 400-500 mm of rainfall or even less,” the study said.

The study said India’s mission to flood the country with milk by developing smallholder diary cooperatives also helped diminish hunger. Till 2007, India was the largest milk producer. Milk was a bigger contributor to gross domestic product than rice.

Gross domestic product, or GDP, is the final value of goods manufactured and services generated in a year.

The IFPRI report was commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to ascertain why “the proportion of people facing hunger dropped from about one third to one sixth since the late 50s”.